Rainbow Visit

Rainbow in Cushing

Margy and I have been visiting with friends in a cabin on the water in Cushing, Maine. This was the view from the cabin the other day, as a rain shower passed through, quickly followed by bands of sunshine, creating a magnificent full rainbow.  It has also been a “rainbow” visit because we are lesbians of a certain age just hanging out and talking and laughing and sometimes bemoaning the state of the country.  While I would never want to lose the wealth that comes from loving friends of all ages and experiences, I have also been appreciating this time filled with the familiarity of shared life experiences.  It is a sense of being understood and understanding, that we “get” each other, from our coming out stories to the advertising jingles that got stuck in our brains long ago.

What is the role of identity in our social justice struggles?  Maybe too big a question to ponder while on this mini-vacation.  But we got talking about the Michigan Women’s Music Festival, which was so empowering and life changing for so many women–including me–but has more recently been the subject of attacks from those who claim it excluded and oppressed Trans women.  And then I also happened to read an article posted yesterday by a friend on Facebook that raised this challenge:

Identity politics have made organizing in social movements almost impossible, as division and suspicion are increasingly encouraged and groups splinter as a result.

That article linked to another, by Lauren Oates, “How Identity Politics is Destroying the Left and Being Used By the ‘Alt-Right.”  I liked some of her points, but I couldn’t rest easy with her concluding question, which seemed to me to misunderstand our struggle to end racism:

It’s about whether you want the world to be perpetually hyper in tune to race — the position identity politics advocates — or whether you want the world to eventually be blind to race.

I don’t think the goal of ending racism is to eventually “be blind to race.”  However, she linked to another article from last year that offered a more nuanced and compelling analysis, Safety Pins and Swastikas by Shuja Haider.  I was particularly drawn in by his critique of the idea of cultural appropriation, since I have been deeply involved in raising that issue in regards to non-Native people’s use of Indigenous spiritual practices.  (In 1995, I first published the essay, Wanting to Be Indian: When Spiritual Searching Turns into Cultural Theft.)

He talks about how the Right has mocked it, “Among the many silly ideas of young leftists who want to appear good without the hassle of doing good, ‘cultural appropriation’ stands alone,” quoting the National Review.  But then, of more import, he points out that “the rhetoric of mainstream antiracism is itself susceptible to appropriation by the Right.”

The eligibility of people to make certain kinds of claims is dependent on the set of criteria that fall into the category of “identity.” Your right to political agency is determined by your description.  We’re left with a simple rubric for determining the truth-value of a statement. Who said it, what group do they belong to, and what are members of that group entitled to say?

…It should go without saying that left-liberal identity politics and alt-right white nationalism are not comparable. The problem is that they are compatible.

I am pulling these quotes a bit out of context, and I encourage anyone concerned with the struggle for justice to check out the full articles.  I would be interested in your thoughts in response to them.  I am genuinely curious about the role of identity in liberation struggles–it has been a compelling question throughout my years as an activist.  Hierarchy, power, liberation, alliance…How do we acknowledge our location? How do we come together with those whose struggles are different from our own?

Forgive me for this meandering thought journey, in which I haven’t fully unpacked anything. But before I conclude for now, I want to come back to one of the most hopeful examples of people working together, both acknowledging and moving beyond “identities,” to face the crisis of our country, the moral fusion movement started in North Carolina by the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II.

Rev. Barber laid the groundwork for a state-by-state movement that unites black, white, and brown, rich and poor, employed and unemployed, gay and straight, documented and undocumented, religious and secular. Only such a diverse fusion movement, Rev. Barber argues, can heal our nation’s wounds and produce public policy that is morally defensible, constitutionally consistent, and economically sane.

This quote is from the description of Barber’s book, The Third Reconstruction:  How a Moral Movement is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear.  You can find out more about this movement at Repairers of the Breach.  Oh, let’s not forget that a rainbow is a sign of hope!

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Rebuilding Relationship with Indigenous Peoples

Penobscot Flag, Photo by Margy Dowzer

Penobscot Flag, Photo by Margy Dowzer

Speaking to non-Indigenous people, if we want to rebuild a positive relationship between ourselves and Indigenous people, we need first of all to learn how to listen to stories of loss and pain. Listening is not about fixing something, or feeling guilty, or giving advice. Listening is about being present and opening our hearts to the experience of someone who has a story to tell.

When I visited Indian Island with the Giving Winds campaign, we listened to Penobscot elder Donna Loring talk about some of the history between white people and Indians in Maine. There are moments when the pain of such listening feels almost too much to bear, but I remind myself how much more painful it must be for the one telling the story. Then I feel such gratitude that someone is willing to share these stories with us.

If we want to rebuild these relationships, it is also helpful to be aware of some of the traps into which we might fall. One trap is denial. Denial is a tendency to minimize the damage, or scapegoat the victim to avoid the pain of what has happened. One example is the belief that Native Americans have benefited by being absorbed into white culture. Another form of denial is the myth that it all happened in the past and it’s over now. Denial interferes with our ability to be present and to listen. For healing to occur, we must acknowledge the brokenness of the bonds between us.

Another trap in our culture today is the temptation to romanticize Indians and Indian culture. I call this trap “wanting to be Indian.” The romantic stereotype is that all Indians are mystical teachers, close to the earth and bearers of a better way to live. One of the most problematic manifestations of this trap is the widespread marketing of so-called “Native American Spirituality.” What is advertised as Native American spirituality is a distortion, fragments of Indian spiritual practices taken out of context. Most Indigenous people are outraged and frustrated by this abuse of their culture and religions.

Janet McCloud, a Tulalip elder and fishing rights activist, says:

First they came to take our land and water, then our fish and game. …Now they want our religions as well. All of a sudden, we have a lot of unscrupulous idiots running around saying they’re medicine people. And they’ll sell you a sweat lodge ceremony for fifty bucks. It’s not only wrong, it’s obscene. Indians don’t sell their spirituality to anybody, for any price. This is just another in a very long series of thefts from Indian people and, in some ways, this is the worst one yet.

I believe this issue of spiritual theft is especially important for those of us who are seeking to reconnect with the earth. We might naturally seek to learn from the people who have honored their connection to the land. And it is important to acknowledge that there is much to be learned from Native peoples. But in our search for help, we can do damage too, because of the context of the broken bonds between us. If we are not sharing the pain and the struggles of Indian peoples, then what right do we have to share in the celebrations?Solstice MJ IMG_0057

These ideas were previously explored in my essay “Wanting to Be Indian: When Spiritual Searching Turns into Cultural Theft” now available online in pdf format.  The quote from Janet McCloud was originally published in Z Magazine, Dec. 1990.